Got the new Action Comics #1 yesterday and managed to save it for the very end of the evening, with ice cream.
It was totally worth it.
If the whole DC reboot has done only one thing right, it’s given us Grant Morrison writing a new take on Superman. And it’s pretty freaking great. I’ve been reading a lot about Superman (and Supermen) lately, including Supergods, Morrison’s own book-length essay on comics, Tom DeHaven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, which is a dystopic look at Superman gone evil.
The main problem with Superman is that everyone knows his story. Morrison himself summed it up in eight words: “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.” When a character grows into an icon, it’s harder to tell new stories about him. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to generate dramatic tension about a hero who will always survive whatever is thrown at him.
Of course, all franchise characters always survive. (Wolverine and Batman are somehow more realistic than Superman? Really? When was the last time a bullet stopped either of them?) The tension comes from tricking the reader into forgetting that fact for a moment.
Morrison gives us a new way of looking at Superman. This is Superman fresh off the farm, confident in the way only someone who’s never been hurt can be, and absolutely determined to save everyone. He’s having a great time, too — outracing bullets and police cars and knocking the crap out of bullies. It’s the same laughing, joyful Superman De Haven describes, the one who appeared in the first Action Comics back in 1938. (The slightly more mature version who showed up in Justice League #1 last week only appears in one panel, but he radiates that same easy confidence with a little more calm.)
And what’s most important is he can be trusted with this insane amount of power. The real secret of Superman is that he would scare us witless in real life. Waid’s Irredeemable shows this in graphic detail. What makes Superman a hero is not his power, but his ability to use it in a truly moral fashion. The little guys in Metropolis love him and the big bosses fear him for precisely this reason. Even the costume works in this context. Sure, it’s slightly dorky — a T-shirt, short cape and jeans. But when it’s on a guy who can jump from the top of a skyscraper and land without a scratch, it takes him from godlike status to almost human. And that’s why Superman wears it. He doesn’t want people to be afraid of him. He wants them to trust him because he really wants to do what’s best for everyone. That’s only possible if people can talk to him without wetting their pants in fear.
Further emphasizing the contrast between Man and Superman, Clark Kent is just a struggling freelance reporter. He’s a nobody. He can’t get hired by the Daily Planet because he lacks connections and an Ivy League degree. And he’s alone. His only friends in the city seem to be his landlady and Jimmy Olsen, who’s already more successful than Clark is. He hasn’t even met Lois Lane yet. (He owes a lot to Peter Parker here, both in his looks and the general squalor of his living arrangements, just like Peter Parker owed a lot to Superman back in his first appearance.) But he’s still exposing injustice even when he’s not in the blue shirt and cape.
While the pace of the storytelling in most of the other new 52 books is glacial– Justice League, I’m looking at you here — Morrison manages to cram all this information in between two big action set pieces, including Superman stepping in front of a speeding bullet train.
Morrison has done exactly what he’s been promising all these years. He’s made Superman a character who looks brand-new without losing any of what makes him special. It’s probably not going to bring anyone back to reading comics or restore Superman to his million-issue sales glory. And soon enough, we’re going to get Superman wearing the slick blue suit and full-length red cape. He’ll fight Darkseid and push planets back into orbit and all that. But for now, I’m really enjoying a Superman who slaps around wife-beaters, rescues innocent people, leaps tall buildings in a single bound, and does it all with a smile.